Saturday, May 16th, 2009
Well, here we are in St. Croix County. Hudson, Wisconsin. It’s Saturday, the 16th of May. I am here with my brother Joe and we are going back to the oldest of haunts: the Willow River, the Rush River, and the Kinnickinnick River. We’re going back to the early 90’s this week, bringing the skills of over 16 years to bear.

We stop by the Cty A crossing on the Willow River to have a look at our original stomping grounds. This is where it all began. We have not returned here for over 8 years – a measure of the other waters available here in Wisconsin. As we walk along the edge of the river, my memory echoes the laughter and banter of my children all those years ago. The water twists and slides along, rushing against mid-river boulders and gurgling over rocks and timber strewn about the near bank. I stand there listening to its soothing sounds as I revisit precious memories. We would camp at the Willow River State Park – always at the same site. We tent-camped in Laacke & Joys original canvas tents made right here in Milwaukee. We would always bring a cooler with a small block of dry ice to keep the milk and eggs cool and the ice cream frozen. We did this every year from 1994 through to about 2001. We always found our way over to the Willow River at this Cty A crossing, or just below the mill pond dam, or further downstream by the “Willow River Race”.  We may return to visit these sections later, but for now we are headed south to try our hand at the Kinnickinnick River and its abundant brown trout.
We pull off at the State Park Wildlife Refuge at Cty F where it crosses the Kinnickinnick River. There are about half a dozen cars here and an empty canoe rack – so some people canoeing the river today. The sign here says “no hunting or trapping”. You have to have a State Park sticker on your vehicle to park here. We stopped up at the Willow River State Park and got ours there. Let’s explore the Kinnickinnick River and see what a category 5 water in Western Wisconsin has to offer us.

Walking upstream, our map of past years tells us to hoof it for about 30 to 40 minutes to get to some select water. There is a path on the north bank of the river that runs along the river for most of its course.

This allows us to watch for flashing and rising fish as we work out way upstream. I recall from past years an extremely small spring brook flowing into the K from opposite bank. I sampled the insects there and was delighted to discover a rare species of caddis – identified from photos that I took back then – pointing to the outstanding nature of this fishery.

We hop into the river after about 30 minutes and warm up our casting as we hop and skip over each other to sample different sections of the river – still continuing upstream. I am just above a nice S-curve with Joe fishing the slot below me when. I can hear him call out that he has just lost a nice brown. I have yet to even tag a fish up through these pools. It is tremendously deep here, so I am fishing a very long leader with a tungsten bead-head prince stonefly – my own variant.

Prince Stonefly Variant (Tied by Paul Stillmank)

This Kinnickinnick River is about as pretty a river as I have ever seen. Perhaps we should have been fishing it all these years. It has beautiful limestone walls, some of them just seeping with water – reminiscent of the early Willow River before they removed the dam at the old Mill Pond. That Pond piled a lot of water into the surrounding limestone for a dramatic effect downstream. That is all gone now along with the trout. The Dam removal was botched and shallow springs were wiped out. There are still trout to be found here, but it is more of a warm water fishery now. Sad. And one of only a few situations where a Dam removal produced a poor result.

The Kinnickinnic is a natural wonder – there are no dams at all here. I trace my way back along a small fork in the river that runs up to a low limestone ridge. Water is seeping from the porous stone. It is cold here. Life is drawn both to and from this spring. Where the water seeps from the stone, dark mosses are growing –hanging down as they follow the water toward the river below. Where the spring enters the river, the water is as deep and dark as that moss – no doubt harboring large Salmo trutta in its depths.

I just fished through a beautiful piece of water which I have no doubt had trout in it, but I am walking away fishless. I’ll be analyzing why in my mind as I work further upstream. There are bugs coming off. There are birds on the water in countless numbers, swooping down and taking Caddis as they take flight from the water’s surface. However, no fish rise here except for a red horse that startled me as it leapt more than a foot out of the water about five feet away from me. I’m moving up to find Joe, see how he’s faring, and pick out another piece of water.  

When I catch up with Joe, he is fishing along another limestone bluff. It is deep here with some wood down below. It is a deep and dark hole. Joe throws a little pheasant tail nymph back in there and is rewarded with a nice 12-inch brown trout. So Joe’s into fish and I’m still fishless!

Joe Casting Along a Limestone Wall

I photograph some of the bugs here. There are some Stenonema Vicarium. There are also some large mayfly nymphs from the clinger class that I will have to look up when I get back to make sure we get them properly identified.  I photographed some of them along with the appropriate imitations from my fly box. Have a look:

Matching Underwater Insects

I know I’m getting to the bottom. I know I’m swinging the fly right. Where are the trout? Finally on the way back downstream, we come across a large rock outcropping cutting a line in the water. I work my same rig since the water is both fast and deep coming off of this rocky ledge. Bang! I finally hook up with a nice one – just north of 12-inches.

When I catch back up to Joe, he reviews his day noting a couple of browns in the 12-inch class. He also describes a big one that got off. He was mid-river in a nice, deep run and he got the brute all the way to the scoop when he realized that he had no scoop! Another one for the memory books! He said it went at least 17 inches. He truly put it together much better than I did today. We noted on the drive back out that he was fishing much lighter bugs and shorter leaders. With some of the hatches present, that might have been warranted – the fish were looking up!

Sunday, May 16th, 2009
A new day, a new river. It’s afternoon already. Having noted the condition of our backs at the end of our long day yesterday, we decided to get on a bit later today, affording us a little reserve strength for the evening hatch. We’re headed to the Rush River area. We turn off of Hwy 72 and head south. It amazes me that these old roads used to have such fantastic names. We used to get into this river at a bridge on “Stonehammer’s road”. Now it’s called nnn-th avenue. In any case, we will start out today on a tributary to the Rush River that we first fished back in 2003. This little tributary is another beautiful creek with limestone walls and a couple of deeper pools. I recall a nice brown trout in the 16-inch class taken on Ross Mueller’s “dark ribbed yellow” nymph http://bit.ly/5PSxhs . We may actually fish through this area and on into the woods above. It’s heavily posted there, however the regulations say that we can go through there as long as our feet are wet and our purpose is intent on fishing.

We’ll finish up on the Rush River itself later today – perhaps on a new section. Then we will wrap up the day with an evening hatch on the section above our old Stonehammer’s Road.

We begin on that tributary first. There are some smallish trout here. We can see them finning in the different pockets. The creek here is perhaps 15 to 20 feet wide. There are limestone bluffs along its edges. I’ve moved up just below a memorable location. This is where I took the largest of browns from this water in 2003 (see image to the left).
The lesson here is that rivers change and the memory of a spot is never quite the same years later. And that is the nature of rivers. The water was a bit deeper here in 2003. The corner where I had caught this fish still hosts the large bolder that I remember jutting in from the edge, however the bottom is much shallower now perhaps ravaged by 6 year of spring flooding. There is still a nice foam line here paried by the large boulder and I have a go at it. As I work the section hard and it only yields a 6-inch brown to a combination rig of a #4 Elk hair caddis and a #18 bright green crystal flash caddis emerger with a puffy black head. The trout takes this trailing fly.

As I swap out my rig, a fly box hits the drink. Ouch!  I’ll have to dry that box out this evening to avoid hook rust.

I reach another bridge and cross it to find a fast run of pocket water. I recall this spot as well. A dark, beadhead mayfly nymph trailing a short line to a strike indicator did the job last time. I rig it up. Again, the water is much shallower, especially for this time of year. The water is cold. I don’t have my thermometer, but it is trout cold.

We didn’t do so well on that first section of water. However, at 6:30p we are still on that same tributary. Why? Because we moved downstream to do a bit more fishing on a new section where the water was a little bigger. We saw some trout finning here above another bridge and decided to hit it. We moved through the small gate attached to a tree. Joe took a little nap on the grass here while I distracted myself with a few small brook trout, the largest was 7-inches – a mail with good colors.

Next, I headed upstream while Joe headed down. The upstream section was beautiful and cold. I ended up walking along an underwater ledge on the upstream left side of the river and watching the glide next to me as a large, behemoth brown moved up and down the river. I tried in vain to catch this brute, but he was much too old and wise for me. I would have to fish here after dark sometime with a mouse or large streamer.

I finished up this section trying to swing fly down to my quarry – a pass lake wet. No good. I headed downstream to find Joe. Amazingly, Joe was also fishing the Pass Lake Wet when I caught up to him.

This downstream section has some incredibly deep, green pools flanked with limestone and downed timber. Joe found a spot where he could cast his wet fly up stream into a nice pool and strip it back down. He took successively larger brook trout on each cast:

Successively Larget Brookies With Each Cast

Rush River Tributary

Joe and I fish down a bit further and to some sporadic risers before heading back up to the bridge in hopes of an evening hatch on the section upstream of Stonehammer’s Road.

Caitlin Extracts a Brown Trout in the Rain - Rush River 2003

Stonehammer’s Road

We arrive Stonehammer’s much too close to dark. I high tail it straight for a specific spot. Joe dives into the river about half way up. I arrive at my destination. I remember it very well. I remember a little sleuce dumping into a massive pool below. There are fish rising above.
River’s bring back memories. This is where Caitlin and I fished together. I remember leaving Caitlin to her own means and then returning later to find her intently working on a rising trout. She had been using a nymph here and greasing it so that it would stay in the surface film – and I was truly amazed at everything she had learned. I mean she couldn’t have been more 11 or 12 years old. She hooked that fish and there was an old, left over remains of a beaver hut – obviously gone now – and I remember Caitlin getting here line wrapped up around those sticks as I tried to help her net that well-earned fish. I wanted it so badly for her. And of course it got away. But the memory remains…

The next year she landed her prey, albeit amidst a drenching rain.

I’ve walked a little further upstream now. More memories. I could not be happier with the time and energy that I invested discovering these places years ago. It is a treasure to come back here. I step into the old spots and let new water flow over my waders. I swing flies to rising brown trout and make some new memories.

Back at the hotel, I pull all the bugs out of that soaked box and dry both them and the foam to avoid the risk of rusting the hooks. The flies look like an army lined up for battle as they dry out over night.

Drying Out the Nymph Box

Monday, May 17th, 2009

Back to Stonehammer’s for a partial day. We will finish early, heading back to Waukesha and Milwaukee in time to see the babies before they go to bed. We decide to push beyond the bend that I finished on last night. That spot always seemed to be the upper end of the water that we ever walked into on this river. We are now well above that looking at what really has to be a fantastic spring creek. There are deep green pools running along towering limestone bluffs. Some plunge pools. There are some smaller fish rising to dries here. I was able to get one in. We are fishing heavier rods here due to the brutally heavy wind that we have to contend with. We’re hitting the 6-weights. The fish are small and the stiff rods do not have much give on smaller fish, allowing them to flip off before they come to hand. It’s gorgeous back in here and we vow to return her for an evening hatch – not today though.

The walk back out takes about 10 minutes from this spring creek like water back down to “Caitlin’s bend”. It is another 8 minutes to the car including the time to snap a few photos of the forest floor: